How Diversity Outreach Programs Shaped Me

Welcome to WiSTEM’s first blog post!! This series will be curated from graduate students within our community monthly.

How Diversity Outreach Programs Shaped Me

Author: Bobbie Brown, Neuroscience PhD student

Editor: Rosie Dutt

Ideally, the world of science should reflect the beauty of the people in the world around us – filled with individuals from all walks of life, working together to better understand the world. To this day, however, there are still barriers that racial, gender, health, and socioeconomic minorities face upon entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields[1]. Many institutions have attempted to address this long standing lack-of-diversity issue by implementing programs to encourage individuals from underrepresented backgrounds (or under-represented minorities; URMs)[2] to enter and remain in STEM fields. Undoubtedly, I would not be where I am today without the help of such outreach programs. These can take the form of summer research opportunities for high school and college students, or as graduate programs that support URM students. These programs gave me resources and support that fostered my curiosity and equipped me with several of the tools needed to begin a career in science.

Since high school, I’ve had the privilege of participating in several programs centered around increasing diversity in STEM[3].  The programs were specifically designed to help URMs establish and maintain a career in science, regardless of their economic background. During the high school summer programs, I gained wet-lab experience through small experiments, obtained skills and insight for the college admittance process, and interacted with older minority role models who already had established careers in science. That summer experience enabled me, for the first time, to hear from URM doctors and scientists – all while developing a community of people who would support me throughout my journey in Science.

I continued to participate in outreach programs[4] during college, this time in the form of summer research. Upon reflection, these very experiences informed my decision to begin a career in research. Through the programs, I experienced what life would be like to work in a lab as a research scientist.  This experience and profound support from peers and mentors made me feel encouraged and excited about scientific research; the influence was so strong that ultimately, I decided to pursue a PhD. My family did not have the resources to support me in these programs on their own, so I am very thankful that these programs were available for all, regardless of economic background. Had it not been for that, I would not be the scientist I am today.   

As a female, African American, and first-generation student from a low-income background, summer programs like these allowed me to experience science while being inspired by others from a similar background and along the same path as myself. Up until this point, I had not known of any doctors or scientists in STEM that came from a background like mine. Seeing other URMs that had made the journey showed me that I, too, could work to have a career in science. Outreach programs – through experience, exposure, support, community building, and mentorship – can reveal to URM participants like me that there is a space for us in science, alongside everyone else who works in the field. These experiences were so impactful on my life that I have made it a personal initiative to participate in outreach programs as a mentor, so that I can help encourage the next generation of young scientist, as was done for me.

Due to the lack of diversity in STEM, it is often hard for me and many other members of underrepresented populations to feel as though they “fit” in a classroom, seminar, laboratory – or even an entire school. Another key component of outreach programs is that they create environments where students facing similar adversities can come together to form a community which provides support for the challenges of being a minority in STEM.  I still rely on many of the friends and mentors I have gained from these programs for support throughout my journey.

Increasing diversity in STEM may take time some, but I believe we can help change “the face of science” by continuing to support programs that make STEM accessible to everyone; mentoring and encouraging URMs participating in these programs can be a good place to start.

[1] The ‘diversity problem’ in science – The Harvard Gazette

[2] Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering – NSF

[3] University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Diversity & Inclusion programs – UAMS

[4] Short-Term Research Experience for Underrepresented Persons (STEP-UP) – NIH

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